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Hong Kong roadkill count launched to reduce wildlife deaths on roads

The Hong Kong warty newt, the city’s only salamander species, is not a big explorer. Still, what the species lacks in wanderlust and speed, it makes up for in thick-headed determination. If instinct points it towards a suitable patch of forest, where it may spend most of the year, it will get there at all costs.

So after breeding in one of the streams that feed into the Lam Tsuen River, legions of the amphibians come ashore at Shui Wo Village in Tai Po each spring, and head for the woods.

Unfortunately, between their starting point and their destination lies a single-track lane flanked by rows of village houses, and this is where danger lurks.

Anthony Lau, a PhD candidate at the University of Hong Kong who has been studying amphibians and reptiles for seven years, counted 194 such creatures from 10 species, including Hong Kong warty newts, on the asphalt lane in the space of six evenings a few years ago. A quarter of them had been flattened, run over by unsuspecting drivers, their corpses awaiting the next storm to be swept away.

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“Hong Kong newts don’t stand a chance against vehicles leaving and entering the village at high speed,” Lau says of the creatures, which are the size of a house gecko. The death toll is highest on rainy nights, he says.

The Hong Kong warty newt, also known as the Hong Kong newt, is protected under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance, and listed as “near threatened”. It is also seen in coastal parts of Guangdong province.

With 2,100 kilometres of roads in Hong Kong – plus dirt paths and village roads – many of which cut through natural habitats and encroach on country parks, it’s no surprise the impact road users have on wildlife. The extent of the carnage remains unknown, though.

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In May, Samson So Ngai-hung, a wildlife photographer and educator, launched a Facebook group called Hong Kong Road Kill after becoming aware of similar projects in Taiwan and Britain. Its aim is to encourage citizen scientists to get to the bottom of the little studied loss of animal life and see what can be done to limit it.

So was motivated by a litany of personal encounters with roadkill over the years, having worked as an environmental consultant and warden of a nature reserve.

“Elusive and rare species are difficult to study,” he says. “It’s saddening that some of my first encounters with those animals have been with their motionless bodies … On remote village roads where vehicles often travel at high speeds, I have seen the fresh carcasses of leopard cats, small Indian civets and pythons that have been run over.”

No government department keeps statistics on the number or type of animals that are killed on the roads, or where the traffic blackspots are. So hopes his campaign can at least shed some light on the situation.

Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Garden, which runs one of the city’s animal rescue centres, says vehicle collisions account for several dozen of the injured animals it takes in every year.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which also receives wounded animals, cites vehicles as one of the most common causes of animal casualties, but cannot provide specific numbers.

The SPCA and Kadoorie Farm say common victims they encounter include macaques, porcupines, wild boar, barking deer, birds and cattle. The most widely reported accident recently was a 2013 hit-and-run on Lantau Island that led to the deaths of eight feral cattle and fuelled a debate over the safety of bovines and motorists.

Dr Gary Ades, head of Kadoorie’s fauna conservation department, says recorded casualties are likely to be a fraction of the number of animals killed. Vehicle collisions with small animals don’t cause tyres to puncture or windows to shatter, and nor do they bring motorcyclists off their bikes, so are less likely to come to the public’s attention than accidents involving big animals like the cattle. Moreover, animals killed on the spot – like the dozens of amphibians in Tai Po – won’t be sent to rescue centres.

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So hopes that his Facebook page will be a platform for people to post photos of roadkill they find in the hope of identifying which, if any, species may be most vulnerable on the roads and pinpoint blackspots for traffic accidents involving animals.

“We can make sure their death will not be in vain, and can help reduce the volume of roadkill,” he says.

Within four months of launching the initiative, wildlife enthusiasts had come forward with more than 80 reports of suspected roadkill – 38 of which were snakes. Five were protected Burmese pythons. Tip-offs have included a case of a globally endangered Reeve’s turtle found in Sha Tin with its shell crushed, a squashed Indo-Chinese rat snake – which is listed as endangered on the international Red List of Threatened Species – spotted on Deep Bay Road, and a dead leopard cat found in Hoi Ha, Sai Kung.

From the information gathered so far, So says snakes and amphibians appear to be the most common victims. “Unwary road users might not be able to see nocturnal creatures such as newts and frogs on the roads when it’s dark. And diurnal animals, like snakes and lizards, which need to bask in the sun to maintain their body temperature can fall victim if they unwittingly seek out tarmac road surfaces, which are more heat-absorbing.”

Widely ingrained suspicion of reptiles also works against them. “If a leopard cat crosses the road or is knocked over, drivers are more likely to stop. But snakes are more likely to be intentionally run over and left to die. People misunderstand or know very little about these animals,” So says.

Another reason such deaths go underreported is that under an antiquated Hong Kong law, drivers are only required to stop their vehicle and alert police if their vehicle strikes a “farm animal”, such as a horse, cow, donkey, mule, sheep, pig or goat. When any other animal is hit, it is up to the driver whether they call the emergency hotlines of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, the SPCA or Kadoorie Farm.

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Although it is too early to draw conclusions from the research, So predicts that “with development of rural areas and a rise in the number of road users, instances of roadkill will only increase”.

So and Ades urge the government to help create safer road conditions for wild animals, in the form of speed bumps, “wildlife crossing” signs and more wildlife-friendly tunnels.

Ades says: “If local planners, engineers and architects were more progressive and innovative, they could come up with all sorts of designs, like culverts to help funnel animals into safe areas, and green bridges to connect one patch of woodland with another. If you created green corridors, animals would tend to stick to those corridors and not take a chance by going out into open areas … and roads.”

Hong Kong has just three wildlife crossings: a 70-metre-long tunnel built in 1998 that connects forests divided by the Tai Lam tunnel and highway, three culverts installed under sections of the Tung Chung Road in 2003 for Romer’s tree frogs, and an underpass dug for otters when construction of the MTR extension to Lok Ma Chau in 2004 cut off their overground route between fish ponds.

Little is known about whether wildlife uses the underpasses at Tung Chung and Lok Ma Chau, but camera traps inside the Tai Lam wildlife tunnel have recorded masked palm civets and leopard cats using it.

Even so, Ades believes the passage could be better designed. “The tunnels are quite bare inside … What I would have done is place wood piles and vegetation inside the tunnel to create continuity so the animals wouldn’t suddenly come to a long length of concrete, which is scary to them.”

Better still, Ades says, would be for the government to keep intact natural corridors connecting country parks, such as the Robin’s Nest in Sha Tau Kok which links to Mount Wutong.

“This mountain range is important for local species to be able to move and spread into the forest in southern China,” Ades says. “Then the genes of local animals can be mixed with those [in China].”

At the end of the day, we need to recognise we aren’t the only inhabitants of the city.

“Wildlife and humans both have the right to live in our city. We should respect and protect their rights to use the roads,” So says.